Friday, March 22, 2013

Telling Tall Tales of Reality

If you do not have the book yet, here is the chapter we are talking about this Saturday at Cafe Artista:  Shanavasa.pdf

Case 4

Hello All, THANKS to Matt for making todays text available to those who do not have a book. In the Branching Moon sesshin which starts next Saturday, we will be looking at Cases 1, 2, 3, 29, 30 & 31the first 3 ancestors in India and the first 3 ancestors in China from the Record of the Transmission of Light. Because my mind is near next week and I am not picking up case #4 in sesshin, todays commentary might be rather weak. My apologies.

I think during this summers Ancient Bones retreat, we will look at cases 4-7, but I have been known to change course in mid-stream. I will keep you posted on the Ancient Bones material as the time nears. In our two week retreat at Mountain Lamp in May, we will be looking at the last book of the Avatamsaka Sutra (The Flower Garland Sutra) called Entry into the Realm of Reality (The Gandavyuha). In this book, Sudhana, sent by Manjushri, travels in a great arc around the world visiting 53 teachers who point him to the deepest way to live an engaged life of love and understanding. Many of the teachers he visits are laymen and women who have thrown off the signs of practice and are fully involved in the waking lives of their communities. Come join us for all or part of the retreat.

I know some of you have been st(r)uck by the fanciful lives that our early Indian ancestors lived. There are dragons, utterly amazing birth stories and lives of prediction and forecast that sit uneasily with many of our modern rational-scientific-secular-neurological mindscapes and narratives. Personally, I think of these tales as developmental stages in a new course of human evolution. These early tales are very young in perspective, (think of our youthful and young-adult fairy tales filled with dragons, sleeping maidens, kissed frogs, elves et al.) but as we move into China, the tales telling change significantly in scope and scape. Allan Chinen, in his Once Upon a Midlife, has ferreted out a different developmental group of tales that have shed the goblins, dragons, princes and frogs and highlight the new goals and tasks of a well lived midlife. Chinen has lately continued this telling with tales for an older life from a book called Tales and the Second Half of Life. He has one other book called Beyond the Hero. All are informative, thought provoking and open up another facet to fairy tales. If you become bogged down in Keizans wonderful story telling, jump to the middle or end of the Denkoroku for some stories more grounded in things that we can directly relate to although not necessarily any more true. Find your own way to enter these tales and, if nothing else, imagine this wonderful place from across the globe and across time zones where things unknown to us can happen, and let them loosen the associations to your normal and regular thoughts, feelings and sensations& that will be a wonderful starting place to enter your late evening zazen.

There are many sentences in Kaezans teisho that I am drawn to. In order to let Sanavasa know that Buddhas respond to calls (Cleary: Buddhas come out in response to the search for them.) and appear in accordance with knocking, Ananda showed him ( a living sitting right in front of you Buddha) by grasping the corner of the robe and tugging it.  Sakyamuni, too, tugged when he twirled the flower and Mahakasyapa followed suit when he called Ananda”…& so the conversation at Vulture Peak continues. Keizan makes this point again saying, There may have been differences in the periods of Buddhism in India, China and Japan, yet there have been plenty of sages who realized the fruits of Buddhism Since you have the same faculties as the ancients, wherever you go, it can be said that you are this {complete} person. You are Kasyapa and Ananda Your robe (clothes) too is uncolored There is no difference in the four great elements and five aggregates between those of old and you, so how are you different from the ancients as far as the Way is concerned?...In the past you planted seeds of virtue and formed affinity with wisdom, love and compassion; it is because of this that you have gathered here in this café this morning. This is indeed like standing shoulder to shoulder with Kasyapa, sitting knee to knee with Robert Aitken. If you continue to practice to the best of your ability, you will be Buddhas and Zennists all of your lives. The above may not be an accurate quote but that doesnt make it any less true.

In reality, the sourceless stream pours forth from a 100,000-foot cliff, which has no finger of handholds. It runs through, over and around each thing. It flows right here, below our feet and if we listen closely, sometimes we can hear itnow as a flicker banging on a green metal roof; then as a late night owl; then as a mourning dove just recently arrived. Sometimes it goes completely quiet, but that is how we hear it. It is all of you and me but we are not the all of it.
And though it is pure and dustless, it comes to raucous and unsettling sangha meetings, it roams the almost vacant streets of Syria and Iraq and it is immediately behind the boarded-up windows of abandoned tenements.
If you look for it or strain to hear it, you wont. But if you allow yourself to take a walk at midnight, without a light or map, you will find it is constantly under foottugging, twirling or twinkling.

take careand see you (or miss you) at the Branching Moon sesshin



  1. PZC Scribe’s Report, Saturday, March 23, 2013, “Shanavasa” in The Record of Transmitting the Light, pp. 42-45.

    Shanavasa’s natural clothing, Shanavasa also the name of a grass; they were hemp robes, perhaps, but did he become a nudist? Ananda pulled the robe over his head, but this was edited out, according to one member of our group; another suggests that there weren’t much to the stories available and in order to create the written texts, embellishment occurred – there are no awakening stories and these don’t sound very Asian besides. Ananda was very old, 160? Did they do a good job of keeping time? Ananda as a unifying figure, there to encourage and witness enlightenment of the patriarchs. Shanavasa: being born with “colorless” clothes = is a placeholder for the robe, so a metaphor, since the robe is a symbol of taking on precepts of living a Buddhist life. The “natural clothes” are a figure for “original nature.” The Verse Jack included: what about his version? Closer to home, in our time/place. “If you look for it or strain to hear it, you won’t.” But you’ll hear something. The documentary movie Kumare, about a frustrated man who becomes a fake guru, but leads followers on in meaningful practice. How do teachers know if they are “real” teachers? This seems to be “covered” in the idea that students are encouraged to have their own practice of enlightenment. Sports as a mythology, theatre. We render a critique of the industrial sports complex, and try to draw out some complexities of Zen practice, how it corresponds and departs from notions of Zen practice. Sports are a form in which you can lose yourself, but it is perverted by being a spectator sport, thus caught up in dualism. Passive fandom. Why are we picking on football, not basketball? Just a question. “Dependent on grasses and adhering to trees”(44) – refers to intermediate existence of wandering spirits, this temporary refuge is the only shelter; a metaphor for Zen students who have left the ordinary life and made some progress but haven’t decisively concluded their training. Repeated admonishments in text – “you must not practice Zen aimlessly and spend your whole life in vain”(44) – that are oddly reassuring or encouraging (that is me, I don’t want to keep doing that, I do want to do better). These are the meaningful parts of the text for some of us. We return to the question of why we are talking about fake gurus and sports: what do they have in common? and what does sports have in common with our practice? The problem of ego; the variable richness of metaphors. How much each, at different times, is wrapped up in greed and power and politics; how it is possible to “be a lamp unto yourself,” to avoid being a “shelterless spirit.” Shanavasa is kind of like shavasana. The value of this kind of text (Transmitting the Light), figuring out the lesson for yourself from a weave of myth and verse and teisho, a less didactic text.

  2. I really responded to that last sentence: the value of our text is figuring out the lesson for yourself from a weave of verse and myth and teisho, a less didactic text.' Our own experience is where to start from--that is what the Buddha tells us to do. The weave is key---we need to read flexibly, so that different kinds of writng--poetry, story telling, dialectical reasoning, can offer their lessons. And unlike most readers, we have bullt-in correctives to our tendency to deceive ourselves--teisho from a teacher who has the vision we are opening ourselves to, and, I would add, comparing our own thoughts with the different points of view in the sangha.


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